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In Her DNA

A life examined: Rosalind Franklin, c.1950.In November 2018, the Bank of England asked the public to ‘Think Science’ when nominating candidates for recognition on their new £50 note. They received 114,000 eligible nominations by early December. One scientist to make the first shortlist, which included Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Alexander Fleming, was Rosalind Franklin, who was given odds of 6/1 to win by bookmakers William Hill.

Franklin was born into a wealthy and influential family in London’s Notting Hill in 1920 and died in 1958. Her parents had a strong social conscience. Her mother, the daughter of a lawyer, dedicated much of her time to charitable work, including helping unmarried mothers. Her father, an investment banker, worked with the London Working Men’s College, one of the earliest adult education colleges in the UK. Unsurprisingly, Franklin was encouraged to think independently about politics and society and to defend her opinions. Although her family was Jewish, she later became an agnostic. At Cambridge, she joined the Jewish Society, though it has been suggested this was simply to keep her grandfather happy.

Naomi Elster | Published 14 January 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 1 January 2019


The staple dish of the Middle East is as contested as the region, with different peoples claiming it as their own.

Falafel is the archetypically Middle Eastern dish. Made from ground fava (broad) beans, chickpeas or a mixture of the two, these deep-fried balls are a staple of Levantine cuisine. Whether eaten alone as a quick snack, or served in a pitta with salad and tahini-based sauces, they are a common sight at foodstalls and restaurants from Aden to Istanbul, and from Baghdad to Benghazi. But if you ask where falafel actually comes from, you’ll never get the same answer twice.

Falafel is as contentious as the region itself. While the Israelis have fêted it as one of their national dishes, the Palestinians are resentful of what they perceive as the ‘theft’ of a distinctly Arab speciality. Meanwhile, the Lebanese have tried to have it recognised as their own; even the Yemeni say it is they who invented it. This is not just a matter of culinary pride. More often than not, arguments about the origins of falafel are refracted through the lens of political rivalries. Particularly for the Israelis and the Palestinians, ownership of this most distinctively Levantine dish is inexorably bound up with issues of legitimacy and national identity. By claiming falafel for themselves, they are each, in a sense, claiming the land itself – and dismissing the other as an interloper or occupier.

Under Good Birds

Mathew Lyons | Published 08 January 2019
Pity the wryneck – a species of long-tongued woodpecker – in ancient Greece: it had the great misfortune to be considered an essential part of a sex toy. The poor bird was spread-eagled and bound to the four spokes of a wheel, which, when spun, whistled in a way thought sure to arouse desire in its recipient. We remember its fate today when we jinx people: the word jinx being derived from its Greek name, iunx . Pity, too, the pigeon squab on a Roman farm, force fed two or three times a day and confined to a caged nest...Read more »

Mathew Lyons is a columnist for History Today and the author of The Favourite: Ralegh and His Queen (Constable & Robinson, 2011).

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Man with a Movie Camera

No smoking: the ‘cutting room floor’ frames from the Roundhay Gardena Scene by Louis Le Prince, October 1888. In 1888, in Leeds, the French inventor Louis Le Prince shot what many now consider to be the world’s first films. Fragments of three survive – the Roundhay Garden, Accordion and Leeds Bridge scenes – in which the inventor managed to capture moving pictures years before Thomas Edison or the Lumière brothers. Le Prince, however, never got to show the world beyond his workshop what he had achieved. On 16 September 1890, just before he was due to demonstrate his films in public for the first time, he boarded the Dijon to Paris train and was never seen again.

Louis Aimeé Augustin Le Prince, a young artist, engineer and photographer, came to Leeds in 1866, where he worked in a brass foundry, married, started a family and involved himself in the social and intellectual circles of the city. In 1888, he built a single lens camera with which he shot a number of films.

Irfan Shah | Published 07 January 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 1 January 2019


A mythological creature of extraordinary resilience.

A unicorn falls asleep on the lap of the Virgin Mary in Domenichino’s The Virgin and the Unicorn, painted in 1605, which hangs in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. In Christian thought, the unicorn represents the incarnation of Christ, a symbol of purity and grace that could be captured only by a virgin.

Yet the myth of the unicorn long predates Christianity, having roots, possibly, in the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation of what is now Pakistan, where it is depicted on seals (though some scholars have argued that these may just be a bull in profile).

The Greeks considered unicorns part of the natural world rather than of myth. Ctesias, in his work Indika (‘On India’), described an animal, possibly from Iran, looking like a wild ass with a horn. Pliny the Elder described a ‘monoceros’, combined of elements of a stag, elephant, boar and horse. Chinggis Khan is reputed to have met a unicorn bearing a prophecy.

In medieval Europe, the unicorn, in the form of a horse-like creature, became a staple of chivalric authors, such as Thibaut of Champagne. A lover and his lady are compared with the unicorn and the Virgin. During the Renaissance, as humanism spread, it became a secular symbol of chastity and fidelity.

Our Past, Present and Future

Can the collective endeavour of history still be our guide in the age of solipsism?

Vanitas, by Edward Collier, late 17th century.In a fascinating if rather depressing essay, broadcast as part of BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, the historian and novelist Stella Tillyard confronted what she considers to be a crisis in history. For her, as for many of us, history has been a guide premised on the belief that, if we understand the past, we ‘have the knowledge to confront the future’. Since the first stirrings of the Enlightenment, when religion began its ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’, history has taken on the mantle of a secular faith, a ‘justifying and ordering force’, according to Tillyard, which connects us to the past, explains the present and offers windows on the future. Its professionalisation, from the 19th century onwards, rooted in the rigorous study of the archive, put it at the heart of the humanities, where it has remained ever since.

But can history sustain its position in the age of Trump, of Putin, of Brexit, in a time of ‘patchy teaching’, when ‘certainty is elusive’, the truth seems ‘contingent and malleable’ and the obsession with the self, hardened by social media, eats away at the empathy that is at the heart of the collective enterprise of historical study?

Why do the British know so little about Irish history?

In the first of a new series, we ask historians one of the burning questions of the day.

Anglo-Irish relations: Henry authorises Dermot to levy forces in 1170, from J.W.E. Doyle's A Chronicle of England, BC55 to AD 1485 (1863). (Bridgeman Images)

It was not always the case

John Bew, Professor in History at King’s College London, and Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics at Queen’s University, Belfast.

It was not always thus. For as long as Ireland was part of the Union of 1801, Britain played close attention to Ireland, particularly its elites. That is not to say that it always got it right. Catholic emancipation, promised at the time of the Union by William Pitt and Lord Castlereagh, was delayed until 1829, teaching Ireland the lesson that it was no use appealing to the British sense of historical justice without threatening mass agitation.

Any Book You Like

Peter Brown | Published 17 December 2018
In Robert Darnton’s hands the accounts and letters of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) become an eye-opening story of how foreign publishers smuggled forbidden and pirated books into France between 1769 and 1789. Paris firms had a stranglehold on the nation’s publishing, reinforced by state edicts suppressing ‘subversive’ works. An illicit industry satisfied the appetite of readers for all kinds of writing, sanctioned or not. Covert networks were extensive and professionally organised. From Amsterdam to Avignon, publishers not constrained by the laws of the ancien régime , let alone copyright, delivered books across France. Darnton follows the picaresque progress...Read more »
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The Best Articles of 2018

'Monstra Niliaca Parei', from Aldrovandi’s History of Monsters, 1642.

’Tis the season of reflection: this year, readers of History Today learnt (among other things) of the existence of a British church dedicated to the worship of Adolf Hitler, that the Soviet Union began to crumble in Kazakhstan, how a shipwreck opened Japan to the world and the grisly details of Ottoman succession. We’ve compiled a far-from-definitive selection of our favourite articles published this year and, as usual, they’re free to read for a festively limited time. What generosity! Don’t miss out in 2019.    

Mermaids and Mermen
Vaughn Scribner
Some of the most intelligent people in early modern Europe were convinced of the existence of merpeople.

Heads Will Roll
Gemma Masson
Getting and keeping the throne in the Ottoman Empire was no easy task. For a new sultan, the most foolproof method of securing power was to kill all other claimants.

Rhys Griffiths | Published in
Rhys Griffiths | Published 12 December 2018

Rhys Griffiths is Assistant Editor at History Today.

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Welcoming the Strangers

Strangers welcome: the initial invitation to 24 Dutch (beginning with John Powells) and, beneath them, six Walloon masters (beginning with Robert Goddarte) to settle in Norwich, 1565.‘More than a third of the city’s population now immigrants.’ Today that reads like a shock tabloid headline, but 450 years ago in Norwich, refugees were welcomed.

To outsiders, this was astonishing. The contemporary writer and historian Alexander Neville noted that Norwich was ‘a city seated daintily, most fair built she is knowne, pleasing and kind to Strangers all, Delightful to her own’. The poet Michael Drayton described Norwich as ‘That hospitable place to the industrious Dutch’.

Frank Meeres | Published 12 December 2018
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Volume 68 Issue 12 December 2018